It seems radically unfair that the extremes of weather in our physical world are being paralleled by tornados of emotion whipping across our political landscape. We watch in fearful awe as these destructive energies are unleashed upon us.
I contend that while the cause of extreme weather might be debatable, the source of our political storms is entirely understandable: We are still attached to a destructive form of psychology from centuries past. When we lived in competitive tribes we used its violent emotional energy to overcome other groups. Today, however, these same behaviors are harming us. And they need to change.
The common name for this destructive psychology is blame. It's deeply embedded throughout our society.
We tend to view blame as a necessary behavior, a way to seek justice, a synonym for accountability or responsibility. But it's none of these. In fact, blame is a four-headed beast that attacks with criticism, accusation, punishment and humiliation. We can launch these behaviors separately or fuse them into an assault that can annihilate the intended target. Emotions can and do kill. Consider those who commit suicide when battered by just one of blame's toxic tactics, humiliation. Indeed, blame is so unrelentingly harmful because its primary function is to attack and injure.
There's also a virtually unknown psychological paradox embedded within blame that preserves its vampire-like longevity: Blame helps reduce our anxieties by dumping our fears and stresses onto others.
For example, when our favorite candidate verbally attacks an opponent, we momentarily feel less threatened and more secure because the other person's potential is weakened. Our candidate temporarily surges in popularity and the blame behaviors are reinforced. The opponent responds in kind and the blame-cycle continues.
This same dynamic is also at the root of bullying, whether in school or on the street. The bully's internal anxieties are relieved by debasing another person or group. Thus blame feeds the roots of every form of bigotry, sexism and racism.
Human beings are hard-wired to dump their uncomfortable emotions onto others. The process begins in kindergarten. The teacher tells Alex to stop talking. Alex protests: "David started it!" If the situation escalates, Alex calls David stupid!
We are all still attached to the dynamics of kindergarten. Mark hits a pothole and blows a tire. He angrily criticizes the city for not fixing the roads. The city council criticizes Mark and others for not voting to pay for road repairs. Mark accuses the city of wasting money on pensions. A city employee wants her pension, so she criticizes the school system for spending money to educate undocumented children. The children can blame no one so they remain the target.
In the meantime, the potholes don't get fixed, nor do the schools. Everyone involved is caught in a cycle of mutual criticism, accusation, punishment and humiliation. Energy that might yield solutions is instead consumed in attacks, defenses and counter-attacks.
So it's not surprising that politicians, too, criticize, accuse, punish and humiliate their opponents. The other party started it! The opposition made such a mess of things because they're weak, untrustworthy and even treasonous. Sadly for us and society, nothing about the four-headed beast of blame actually fosters accountability or points us toward solutions.
Is there a solution? Yes, but it's not short-term. Societies and the structures that govern them mature slowly. Emotionally mature nations are like emotionally mature individuals: They've learned that reacting to a provocation -- a "Blame Attack" -- by responding with fury results in a destructive spiral of conflict. An emotionally mature adult responds with thoughtful deliberation, not raw feeling.
A prime model is the attorney Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. When his fellow citizens attacked him with criticism and accusation, he responded with maturity and compassion. He maintained his moral and ethical standards even when surrounded by life-threatening violence and bigotry.
Eventually, mature societies evolve beyond the short-term tactics of blame and conflict. (Think France, Germany and Britain.) The citizens finally embrace the obvious reality that actual problem-solving requires constructive engagement to negotiate solutions -- to avoid war and to fix the potholes. This process demands the ability to tolerate one's own anxiety and to carefully think through the nuances of each situation. It also requires authentic leaders who remind the people that their long-term welfare is found in thoughtful, democratically based problem-solving.
Although it doesn't feel that way during elections, it's been proven that societies can mature and become more just. In the meantime, as the negative storms of blame buffet us relentlessly, the least we can do is not respond to the attack ad with a desire to punish the victim. We must be sufficiently mature to make careful decisions not overtly influenced by criticism, accusation, punishment and humiliation. History amply proves that our long-term best interests are served when we bring thoughtfulness and understanding to a problem, and not succumb to the immediate gratification of angry reaction.
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